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Art & Auction, Home is Where the Lens Is, January, 2004

By Jean Dykstra

Forget digitally manipulated imagery, photo-based art and larger-than-life prints. Two of the most interesting photography books this season are unabashedly intimate autobiographical projects. In the poignant, thoughtful Family Business, Mitch Epstein chronicles the decline of his father's furniture store and real estate empire in Holyoke, Massachusetts. In 1999, two teenage boys set a fire in a boarded-up apartment building owned by Epstein's father. The fire destroyed an entire city block, including a church that subsequently sued the father for $15 million. Though the church eventually accepted a million-dollar settlement from his insurance company, his other business, a furniture and appliance store a few miles away, was still struggling. Several months later, the family-owned store began liquidating its holdings. The prodigal son, Epstein, age 51, returned home to take pictures shortly after the fire. "I wanted to know," he writes, "how the upstanding leader of a successful commercial center was both a victim and a participant of its decline." Epstein has always had an eye for finding beauty in unexpected places, like a lone shopping cart filled with discarded books standing in front of an expanse of aquamarine wall. And like William Eggleston, he transforms the most pedestrian of objects into symbolically loaded images. His father's battered briefcase resting on a blue floral mattress, or a folded American flag hanging on a wall in a dry-cleaner's bag, becomes a symbol of the American dream deflated. Epstein's deadpan stance and confident grasp of color and composition carried earlier projects, like The City (a series published by PowerHouse in 2001), but here he mixes things up, juxtaposing flawlessly composed portraits of objects with snapshots of his elderly parents and video stills of his father's angry confrontations with tenants. A cinematographer whose credits include Salaam Bombay and Mississippi Masala, Epstein has a filmmaker's sense of narrative, a knack for when to widen the frame from personal tragedy to larger social issues. His sympathies clearly lie with his elderly, distant father, but the book also considers the wider landscape of social decay and poverty in Holyoke. It's a provocative book on many levels, not least of which is Epstein's acknowledgement of the personal pitfalls of such a project. Should he help his elderly father or keep taking pictures? How does he deal with his family's discomfort in front of his lens? Epstein's answer is ultimately the book itself: He keeps shooting...